The better a juvenile panther chameleon can blend in with its surroundings, the safer it is from predators. The species is native to Madagascar and continental Africa.
The better a juvenile panther chameleon can blend in with its surroundings, the safer it is from predators. The species is native to Madagascar and continental Africa.

The Colorful Language of Chameleons

Chameleons communicate with color change, hunt with lightning-fast tongues—and live in some of Earth’s most threatened habitats.

For sheer breadth of freakish anatomical features, the chameleon has few rivals. A tongue far longer than its body, shooting out to snatch insects in a fraction of a second. Telescopic-vision eyes that swivel independently in domed turrets. Feet with toes fused into mitten-like pincers. Horns sprouting from brow and snout. Knobbly nasal ornaments. A skin flap circling the neck like a lace ruff on an Elizabethan noble.

Of all its corporeal quirks, the chameleon is most defined by one, noted as far back as Aristotle: color-changing skin. It’s a popular myth that chameleons take on the color of what they touch. Though some color changes do help them blend into their surroundings, the skin’s changing hue is in fact a physiological reaction that’s mostly for communication. It’s the lizard using colorful language, expressing itself about things that affect it: courtship, competition, environmental stress.

At least that’s the belief today. “Even though chameleons have attracted attention for centuries, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding them,” says Christopher Anderson, a biology postdoctoral associate at Brown University and a chameleon expert. “We’re still piecing together how their mechanisms actually work,” from the explosive projection of the tongue to the physics of the varying skin colors. (Learn more about chameleons at a website Anderson runs.)

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